November 24, 2013

Scientific Spirit in India

I posted a long comment on this Livemint article about the lack of a scientific spirit in India.

How does one even begin to comment about 'science' in India?

I wrote probably 1,000 words here in Disqus in half an hour or so and then 'lost it' as the power suddenly went off.

Enough said?

I will try to re-write it all but it might appear even more disjointed or incoherent than when I wrote it the first time. I will post the comment and then keep adding to it.

"Dare Mighty Things" is the logo the MSL Curiosity project uses. Indians, on the other hand, are probably more like 'should I dare mighty things?' or 'dare I? Mighty things??'

Nora Ephron, in her commencement address, urged the graduating females of Wellsley to 'break a few rules ... create a little trouble.' Indians are more inclined to 'leave no rule of *tradition* unfollowed' or 'break no rules that the *wise* old guys in the family have laid down.'

About Americans and their love affair with cars ... that's of course a unique and strange love affair.


I remember reading in Colin Powell's autobiography 'My American Journey' about how he loved to take out the engine of his car and put it back together as a hobby as a middle aged military officer.

I remember reading in Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs that Jobs' dad was a tinkerer too in that legendary 'garage' that middle class Americans living in the suburbs have and where so many technology companies have started.

In Barry Morrow's telling of 'Rain Main,' remember how crucial, in a sense, a classic car was; how that led to a fight between the young Tom Cruise character and his dad which led to a permanent falling out between the father and the son and so on.

To return to science & engineering, India appears to be more about quantity than quality. Hence, the MILLION engineers or so that India produces EVERY YEAR. I am sure Germany, France, UK, Spain, Italy (add any more European nations as you wish) combined produce far LESS than a million engineers per year.

Yet, Airbus is an European company. BMW, Mercedes are German companies. Rolls Royce, maker of mighty jet aircraft engines is British. India has no company recognized the world over like any of the above-named European companies.

Where numbers do appear to tell a tale, they too reveal something unpalatable.

While ISRO's recent feat of launching a spacecraft that should eventually (and hopefully) orbit Mars is somewhat underwhelming when compared against the Apollo moon landing missions of the 1960s, it's still a mighty accomplishment.

So how much is 'India' interested in ISRO MOM? How much is 'young India' interested in it?

The Facebook pages of ISRO and ISRO MOM have far less 'Likes' than most Bollywood and cricket celebrities. There are a few thousand 'Followers' of ISRO MOM's Twitter handle. Contrast that with the MILLIONS of followers that celebrities boast of.

Indians appear to be especially un-interested in the final frontier for some curious reason. I always manage to 'stump' educated Indians by asking a simple question such as 'how many humans have landed on the Moon' and questions of a similar nature.

The educated Indian, let alone the poor villager, is blissfully ignorant about the difference between going to space like Rakesh Sharma or Kalpana Chawla did on Soyuz rockets or space shuttles and going to the Moon which only the Apollo astronauts did.

This lack of basic knowledge points to a fundamental quality of 'lack of curiosity' which is pervasive among Indians.

Curiosity is the fountainhead, from which 'science' flows.

Sam Pitroda sent a tweet about a week or so ago in which he bemoaned the habit of the 'youth' to obsess about Bollywood, cricket and 'gossip' as he put it.

I can imagine Mr. Pitroda hugely facepalming (to put it very mildly) when the whole nation was in the throes of a cataclysm of despair and mourning and shed enough tears to fill the Pacific Ocean as the old cricketer who should have retired a decade back FINALLY retired.

I am not holding my breath (and I hope nor is Mr. Pitroda) hoping that things will change fundamentally.

The simple fact is that the world is changing and it's changing fast and relentlessly and science & technology are driving that change and research and innovations are happening at various places in the world and the world won't wait for India or Africa or Nigeria or Pakistan or Bangladesh to get on on the bus, as it were.

Particle accelerators such as SLAC or CERN LHC are helping us understand the building blocks of nature. Where is India in this? Admittedly, "Big Science" projects costing billions of dollars will be the last thing that the government of India will be able to invest in considering the more basic challenges of primary healthcare, sanitation, and nutrition that a vast percentage of India's population faces.

Our 'eyes' in the skies and on the ground, Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Kepler, VLA, ALMA, JWST, are all helping us develop an understanding about the Cosmos across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Where is India in this? The GMRT outside Pune is the only Indian contributor to observational astronomy but probably not a major contributor.

Private companies launching spacecrafts to the ISS and Virgin and other companies planning to send tourists to space regularly are some developments which are fundamentally changing the nature of the game of space exploration and what that means.

It's like that Queen of Spain (which is to say Spain's government) sponsoring that adventure by Columbus where he set out to reach India and reached America and look where humanity is now.

In space exploration and in fundamental science and whenever attempting to extend the envelope of human knowledge and understand, we sometimes need really long-term thinking.

What will our human ancestors think of humans in the 20th and 21st centuries when looking back in the year AD 2,525 or AD 2,555.

How incongruous and unreal those dates appear when writing them down in the year 2013!

It is said (I think Dr. Neil Tyson says this and Carl Sagan used to say this as well) that 500 years from now, the Apollo Moon landings will be the only things about the 20th century that our descendants will remember.

What are we going to accomplish in the 21st century that will appear remarkable even after 500 years?

In the 20th century, in the space of 100 years (indeed far less than that), we went from the Wright Brothers flying their fragile plane in Kitty Hawk to landing on the Moon and then building supersonic Concordes.

Surely, there is no way there WILL NOT BE human settlements on Mars by the end of this century or before that. Although, clearly, terraforming Mars or building the capabilities for continuous human settlement on Mars is a problem that is quite tougher than even building supersonic planes or A380s.

The other advancements in this century will be in the areas of biology and our understanding of the human brain.

Is anything happening on the 'brain research' front in India?

Who knows? Man (and woman) might well learn the secret to immortality in this century.

In conclusion, the march of science & technology will proceed apace; irrespective of whether Indians or Egyptians or Bangladeshis wish to contribute or not.

BTW, the sooner we forget the likes of Swami Vivekananda, Baba Ramdev, Double Sri 'Bearded Widow' Ravi Shankar, Deepak 'Charlatan' Chopra, Jaggi 'SUV' Vasudev, and so on (I don't think Devdutt Patnaik is 'big enough' as of now to be included in this list), the better for us.

But the trend-lines do not appear to be very encouraging for me. We still seem too attached to our 'culture.' And in a 'Modi-fied' India, a decade from now, I can well imagine Indians seriously debating whether females wearing tight jeans in public 'violates' 'traditional Indian culture' and whether that needs to be banned.

I think Indians have a remarkable capacity to focus on the irrelevant.

I think that's enough on science and the scientific temper and spirit in India.

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